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Eco Tourism in Guyana
Fast Boat to Baganara Island

– Marilyn Browne

Growing up in Bartica has special charms for me. The most common way to travel to and from Parika on our way to Georgetown was on the older, two-decked steamers with names of native fishes and birds splashed in large, emboldened letters stuck to their exteriors – Lukanani, Powis, Tarpon, et cetera. As the boat propelled along, I would watch the surging of the Mighty Essequibo as it provided a living for many under a hot and golden Guyana sun or darkened indigo skies ripe with rain. (Yes, rain still falls hard and often in Bartica, as I recently discovered.)

To relive this cultural odyssey today, the preferred mode of traveling the sprawling openness of the breathtakingly beautiful Essequibo is either by private jet boats or speed boats which ply the route daily. With their super power, these river boats move through the tea-colored waters with seemingly unsurpassed speed and provide a window into a world that is still unknown to many.

Not to be taken lightly, navigating through Essequibo’s sometimes angry and dangerous waters requires great expertise and knowledge. To offset this, the eco tourism industry has provided a number of highly-skilled river warriors who know and have a deep understanding of the river and its tributaries.

At a time when many of the world’s rivers are being contained or re-distributed over agricultural lands, the Essequibo remains in its raw naturalness. Folklore has it that the river derived its name from an Amerindian word meaning “hearth stones” – an ancient custom of collecting stones from the river’s banks to produce fire for the day’s cooking.

Ours was a day cruise that started out in Georgetown around 7:30 am from our take off point on Charlotte Street in late January 2005. In true Guyanese fashion, our small group (five in number) left later than expected. Charcoal skies hung pregnant with rain which eventually give way to the torrential storms that preceded the great floods of January 2005, wreaking havoc and causing devastating physical, emotional, and financial harm to everyone and everything in its path. I was lucky to have left a couple of days before.

After successfully battling slow, tedious traffic leading to the Demerara Bridge, our mini bus driver crossed the river and headed on to the West Bank Public Road. (I should not be whining after living in Los Angeles gridlock for almost twenty-one years.) I watched and tried to subdue any lingering doubts about the trip as the clouds hung lower and lower, disappearing and re-appearing like playful children. Despite the threatening storm, my appetite for adventure was sizzling and I stayed undeterred.

En route to Parika, three more people joined us. Our tour guide (a most friendly and courteous young man) pointed out landmarks and sites, some of which I had forgotten. I kept asking him to repeat what he said to convince myself that some of his explanations were not just mere folklore. He explained the cultural and historical significance of several buildings that people pass daily without giving a hoot about such specifics.

We arrived at the landing at Roeden-Rust on time. Probably in his early forties, our captain’s confidence seemed as solid as Gibraltar (unfortunately, I don’t remember his name) and, after a quick refueling, and strapping on our life jackets, our group climbed aboard the small metal-bottomed boat and we jetted off.

We were immediately drawn into the enchantment of the river, and passing all the old landmarks filled me with childhood memories. Fort Island – the old remnants of the 1700s where some say Guyana’s history truly begun. This is where the Dutch had established themselves in all sections of the region. Using Kykoveral, (a Dutch fort at the confluence of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers), then later Fort Island, as a base, they traveled by foot and canoe establishing contacts with various Amerindian villages where they traded European goods for annatto dye, letter wood, and crab oil.

As we crisscrossed the water at top speed, I felt my heart pounding and could only think of those Discovery Channel documentaries showing life in the Florida Everglades and other places where filmmakers use similar boats.

It was harvest time for the banana industry and boats piled high with fruit passed us as they headed for Parika.

Occasionally, our guide broke the morning’s silence to bring us up to date on who owned which island as we sped past.
Ian McDonald’s pulsating poem The River-Crossing Moths fitted right into the landscape as we continued up river. In his tribute to native insects and the River, McDonald wrote in part:

In a flash a cloud of velvet, shimmering moths,
Black-shining, edged with emerald white,
Rise marvelously from the sun-touched bank:
They fly in thousands to the far shore.

Here the great river is miles wide,
In thousands the shining moths will die.
Their brave fragility cannot last for long:
Already scores have lost the way, …

Though their numbers seemed far fewer than the “thousands” mentioned by McDonald, the river birds did have a feast “spear[ing] them from the sky” and many of them seemed to lose their way as was meant by Nature.

Almost hidden behind swaying rain forest leaves spread like oversized fans, I saw women and children bathing waist-deep in water, and laundering their clothes on huge boulders, deposited there perhaps thousands of years ago, and though I couldn’t see them, I rather suspect a few four-legged rain forest dwellers were lazing in the morning air awaiting the warmth of the sun.

Sometimes, I saw surly looking fishermen throwing their lines as far out as they could to get the best catch of the day.

Along the banks of the River, I noticed the Shanklands Resort sign, another eco-tourist paradise with its “unlimited potential for natural discovery and inspiration.”

From time to time, long-legged storks crossed the sky and dipped into the water catching careless fish, then rested on branches jutting out over the water.

I spotted a few unidentified birds along the bank of the river floating on logs as if Nature was trying to assuage my disappointment for not offering more variety. I am an avid bird lover and had hoped to see a lot more.

About forty-five minutes into the trip, our guide announced that we would make a short detour into the mouths of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers. Another famous Guyanese poet, Ivan Forrester, brings the former to life in his work and apt description. “Mazaruni.” In part, it reads:

My roar is that of a thousand jungles
As from Pakaraima’s lofty heights
I plunge and clothe myself
In mist and foam
Dancing my dance of death…

The rivers frothed and foamed as the boat slid over giant boulders and great rocks formed by Nature.

We were shown various points of interest including the Mazaruni Penal Settlement, Mazaruni Granite from which granite is quarried and exported to the Caribbean and other parts, Brazilian Gold Mining from which (well that is a whole other story. It is said that some of these miners are illegally mining and removing large, rare diamonds and other precious stones from Guyana without anyone seeming to care), and Calf Island (an old Cholera burial ground).

Though it happened very quickly, the highlight of the detour was going past Marshall Falls. We could not see the falls as we went by. That was for another trip.

As we docked alongside the landing at Bartica, our tour guide informed us that we would only be there for twenty minutes. We disembarked and went across to visit the still new mall to check out its curious mish-mash of offerings – stone jewelry, designer clothes, craft, etc. We could have been in a similar sized mall anywhere in North America. (Then again, that may have been the intent.) I am sure it provides a unique shopping opportunity for the residents of Bartica.

We left on time as planned and after another five miles south of Bartica, we arrived at our destination, and were greeted by a young woman/waitress who offered us tall glasses of cold, refreshing lemonade.

The view around the island is that of a magnificent, oversized painting – lush, emerald rainforest. Described by the cruise operators as a “tranquil paradise,” Baganara is over one hundred and eighty seven acres and a great place for welcoming tired urbanites searching for spiritual rejuvenation and respite. The resort represents itself as a “treasure” for tourists just having a one-day tour (like we did) or longer, or as a luxurious launch pad for those heading to Kaieteur or Orinduik.

Baganara exudes a swank, yet down home style. All rooms command spectacular views of the island where the likes of Eddie Grant and his buddy, Mick Jagger, have spent time as was evidenced by the memorials plastered on the walls leading up to the rooms.

Among the regular activities – River Swimming, Cricket and Fishing, the Resort offers a wider selection of other activities to the avid naturalist – a Banana Boat Ride, Kayaking, a Sunrise Tour, an Excursion to Parrot Island and the Falls (presumably Marshall), as well as Canoeing and Nature Walks.

The solitude of the island was broken only by the sounds of chirping insects, a few birds perched high in tall surrounding trees, and the constant lapping of small waves at the water’s edge.

The memories of this experience will stay with me for a long time. We spent the rest of the day on the island, and left around 3:30 pm in the stillness of the afternoon accompanied by a soft, insistent shower.

For those who have never gone, when you visit Guyana again go and experience the beauty of the land. Recharge yourself and tune in to nature. Guyana’s eco tourism is really calling!

Note: This article is not intended in any way to promote Baganara over other resorts in Guyana. When I travel to Guyana again, I hope to visit competing businesses. – MB)

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